John Degenkolb is a !ery character in a race, but o" the bike he’s very di"erent. German journalist Felix Mattis explains how he is seen by the fans back home
When John Degenkolb returned to Calpe in December 2016, it was the first time he had been back to the scene of his horrific training crash 11 months earlier. “I’m glad it’s finally the last time I have to talk about the crash,” John Degenkolb said at the time. But setbacks in the following 18 months put the topic back on the table time and again. With his first Tour de France stage victory in Roubaix, that chapter of his life is finally closed and the focus can return to the person and rider he is, instead of the accident he had. There is much more to Degenkolb than his well-documented near-death experience. The 29-year-old might even be the perfect example to explain why people sympathise with an athlete they have never met in person. In many ways, he’s a star with whom fans find it easy to identify. He’s an emotional rider with a hot passion for the pure beauty of cycling and its traditions. He is part of a tight family and he exhibits his love for his kids openly. And he loves what men love: football, motorbikes and rock and roll.
Degenkolb is not one of those professionals who seems to have been ironed smooth by media departments and PR training. He uses his personal vocabulary instead of the boring lexicon of others, whose only objective is to avoid saying something bad. And so Degenkolb come across as authentic, and authenticity is the best form of PR. When he speaks about his sport and his passion – the hard races of the spring – there’s a glint in his eye. “Riding on cobblestones, sh*t, it’s hard. But it really fascinates me,” he says. He will glorify the races, but only so much; they still sound real. Hip-hop artists could learn from him on that matter.
The key to Degenkolb might be as simple as that: he’s just real. Last month, the German became the first ambassador of ‘Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix’, the association of volunteers who maintain the pavé sectors of the Queen of Classics and prevent them from being modernised. Les Amis and Degenkolb are both driven by love for the unique race. Degenkolb grew up with a passion for the Classics, which was something he shared with his father, Frank. “I remember how we would always watch San Remo or Roubaix or Flanders sitting on the couch together,” Degenkolb once reflected on his childhood.
At the age of seven, Frank took John to his first bike race. From then on, the direction was clear. His family’s support
was unstinting. One of the first people he hugged when he won in Roubaix in July was his father. Both were in tears. “That was for Jörg,” Degenkolb said, as he dedicated the win to his father’s best friend, who died a year ago.
Close family is one of Degenkolb’s defining characteristics. Two months before he won Milan-San Remo in 2015 he became a father for the first time; in August 2017 his second child was born; Leo Robert and Paula surely already feel the passion for cycling that’s in their family’s DNA – Degenkolb’s wife, Laura, is the daughter of the former national track coach, Robert Lange, who died after a training accident in Mallorca in 2000. Degenkolb’s son, Leo Robert, already has little race handlebars on his balance bike. He was in Roubaix when his father won there in 2015, aged three months, breathing the air of the velodrome.
Degenkolb has a recovery ride planned, he loads his kids into a trailer and takes them out. He lives in a new home in Oberursel, which is on the edge of Frankfurt and close to the Taunus hill. The house is almost on the course of the German WorldTour race, EschbornFrankfurt, and he has a very close relationship to it: his wife has worked for the organisation for years. Together, they created “Dege Bambini Races” for kids on balance bikes.
Degenkolb has lived in the Frankfurt area for a long time now, even though he was born in Gera, Thuringia, and raised in Weißenburg, Bavaria. He is a season ticket holder for the Eintracht Frankfurt football team and goes whenever he can get together with his friends such as BoraHansgrohe directeur sportif, Jens Zemke. The passion for two wheels goes beyond cycling as he owns a café racer, a custommade motor bike which he built with the help of friends.
Football, the stylish bike, leather jackets and a good collection of LPs – it’s all very rock and roll and fits the rough, traditional character of the Classics. If Degenkolb wasn’t a rider, he might well be camping with his motorbike at Carrefour de l’Arbre in early April.
Degenkolb is also very emotional and ambitious. “John, you are not allowed to lose,” Patrick Moster, his national coach in the U23 category, once said to him. In an interview with Cyclingmagazine.de Degenkolb admitted that Moster knows him best. “This trait might have blocked me mentally sometimes, but it also drove me.” With age, he has become a little calmer, but not entirely. Recall a scene from the 2016 World Championships in Qatar, when he was so frustrated with the Belgian tactics he sprayed his bidon in Jens Debusschere’s face. It was not right and Degenkolb was remorseful afterwards.
After school, Degenkolb started police training in Thuringia and became an officer, whilst he was riding for the Thüringer Energie Team, the development programme for U23 cyclists in the region.
Football, the stylish bike, leather jackets and LPs. It’s all very rock ‘ n’ roll and its the rough character of the Classics
The team was run by
Jörg Werner, who also organised the international espoirs’ stage race, Thüringen-Rundfahrt. He had a big impact on the careers of Degenkolb, Marcel Kittel, Tony Martin, Maximilian Schachmann and many more – and even though his team and the race collapsed when the funding fell away, he became their manager and brought them all into the WorldTour.
Degenkolb got a contract at HTC-High Road for 2011 and moved on to ArgosShimano, later Giant-Alpecin, where Mattias Reck became his coach. In 2015, Degenkolb and Werner decided to split, and since then it is Caleb Fairly, his former Giant-Alpecin team-mate, who negotiates contracts on his behalf. Pantera Rosa, a Frankfurt communications agency, helps with the rest. In 2017, Degenkolb moved to Trek-Segafredo and took Reck with him. The Swede seems to give Degenkolb the freedom to be himself. From time to time he loves to go mountain biking with Tim Böhme, a recently-retired MTB pro.
On 15 July, when Degenkolb had flown from Lille to Aix-les-Bains in the Alps, he finished the victory celebration dinner with his team in the rest day hotel, the Villa Marlioz. When all the other riders and staff had retired to their rooms, the 29-year-old sat in the lobby happily absorbed in his family, who had flown in to meet him. A couple of hours earlier he leaned in and told me: “If I have learned one thing from this hard time,” he said as he finally shut the door on two difficult years, “it’s to enjoy the good things even more.”
Winning stage 2 of the Dauphiné in 2011, his irst year with HTC
Degenkolb greets his family after winning the 2015 Paris- Roubaix